Kruger National Park stands out as one of – if not the safari destination to visit when in South Africa.

A stronghold of all of Africa’s Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) together with other diverse animal and bird life, makes it a big hit for safari-goers visiting from all over the world.

In fact, last year’s festive season (December 2018 to January 2019) saw over 194 000 visitors to the Kruger; that is a lot of vehicles on the roads even in a two million ha park.

During these high-traffic parts of the year, it could be advisable to look for a safari outside of Kruger.

While Kruger may be the poster child for Big 5 safaris in South Africa, there are some well-kept secrets in the form of private nature and game reserves across the country.

While they might be pricier than the government owned and managed Kruger, they come with some undeniable perks that can greatly improve your safari experience. 

The Top Five Safaris Outside of the Kruger National Park

1. The Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve 

There is something incredibly thrilling – and a little indulgent – knowing that you are part of just a handful of people in a wilderness area. The Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve near Hoedspruit, Limpopo is one such area in South Africa.

At 22’000 ha (60’000 acres) it is a relatively small reserve in comparison to its close neighbour, Kruger.

Combining this with private-ownership and it being fenced, there is a sense of intimacy which replaces the wild vastness of the Kruger.

Lioness closeup - 5 Top South African Safari's Outside of Kruger
A lioness of the Garonga pride © Garonga | 5 Top South African Safari’s Outside of Kruger

The real highlight of a smaller reserve like the Greater Makalali is that your chances to see greater numbers of game improve dramatically.

If the Big 5 are at the top of your wildlife bucketlist, then this is the reserve where you are likely to see them all. Possibly even on one day!

Other wildlife includes ungulates like greater kudu, zebra and giraffe along with endangered species like cheetah and African wild dog.

The natural backdrop to these animal and bird sightings will be rolling hills and viewpoints that look over acacia bush, savanna grassland and the Makhutswi River.

Luxury lodge deck area with pool - 5 Top South African Safari's Outside of Kruger
Private dining area and plunge pool at main camp © Garonga | 5 Top South African Safari’s Outside of Kruger

The safari experience in the Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve is a well-balanced one as it combines the right amount of adventuring through the bush as it does soulful relaxation back at your camp.

At a luxury safari camp like Garonga, you can enjoy the thrill of trekking through the bush on foot in the morning, cruising along comfortably in the game drive vehicle in the late afternoon, and even enjoy a spa treatment or dip in the plunge pool in between activities.

This is a holistic safari experience, good for the mind, body and soul!

2. Manyoni Private Game Reserve 

An eight-hour drive south into north-eastern Zululand will put you at Manyoni Private Game Reserve, another wild playground of the Big 5.

Only slightly bigger than the Greater Makalali, it is one of the largest privately-owned reserves in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

A special part of visiting a reserve like Manyoni is that the restricted number of tourists enable strong control and management of wildlife conservation, ecosystem protection and community empowerment.

3 male lions walking along a dirt road as a safari group looks on
The lions of Manyoni © Rhino Sands | 5 Top South African Safari’s Outside of Kruger

Since less people are permitted into Manyoni compared to a national park, there is better chance of a more private and authentic safari experience that can be more sustainable and ethical. Manyoni has from the start been a leader in wildlife conservation in South Africa.

In 2005, in the newly established reserve, a founder population of black rhino were released into their new home as part of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. This ethos of responsible species reintroduction has continued with cheetahs and African wild dogs now also calling Manyoni their home.  

Luxury tented camp interior
Private and plush en-suite lounge © Rhino Sands | 5 Top South African Safari’s Outside of Kruger

Since there are generally no crowds in a private game reserve, wildlife sightings are undisturbed and can be enjoyed for as long as desired.

It also means that, while journeying into the bush on your game drive from a luxury tented camp like Rhino Sands, you can stop under a giant Marula tree for a coffee and tea break in the morning or watch the sun set on the reserve as you sip on a refreshing gin and tonic.

These are the moments in the tranquillity of the wilderness that will stay with you forever while on a safari in a reserve like Manyoni.